When Jerry C. Elliott High Eagle was born in 1943 there were no astronauts or even artificial satellites in orbit, but at age five (9 years before Sputnik ushered in the space race), he dreamed of helping humanity walk on the moon. His dream had a mix of support from his tribal leaders and family. Elliott’s grandfather told him, for instance, “You’re never going to land a man on the moon while you’re on a horse.” He was never deterred from his goal though, making up for any disadvantages with perseverance and drive. Inspired by his mother and Albert Einstein, at 18, he went to the University of Oklahoma to study physics. Elliot, who is Osage and Cherokee, grew up in Oklahoma City, OK in a mixed native and non-native community. This upbringing left him unprepared for the discrimination he encountered at college. The non-native students of the 60’s grew up with Hollywood versions of Native Americans and judged him in light of their prejudice wondering why he would be pursuing a difficult degree like physics. But he saw his heritage as a perfect complement to his studies. He viewed his ancestors as the preeminent scientists saying, “I went to school and learned what my grandfather already knew even though he didn’t go to school. We knew from thousands of years of experience living in the Mother Earth in the natural way … about all kinds of healing and scientific things, but we never called it science.” He received his degree in physics from the University of Oklahoma, the first Native American to do so, in 1966.
That same year he was hired by NASA as a flight mission operations engineer. His dream of helping put humanity on the moon would be realized in July 1969. Elliott calculated the flight path of every Apollo mission and was involved in every moon landing mission except Apollo 17. As the retrofire officer he was a part of the mission control team that successfully brought home the three astronauts from the aborted Apollo 13 mission and earned the Presidential Metal of Freedom as a result. In his four decades at NASA, he worked on Gemini, Apollo, the Apollo-Soyuz project (the first Russian-American collaboration), Sky Lab, the shuttle program, and the International Space Station. In 1977, Elliott co-founded the American Indian Science and Engineering Society “a national, nonprofit organization focused on substantially increasing the representation of American Indians, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders, First Nations and other indigenous peoples of North America in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) studies and careers.” And in 1978, as Assistant Chief Technologist, Technology Transfer and Commercialization Office at NASA, he orchestrated the American Indian Telecommunications Satellite Demonstration Project that explored connecting northern and southern tribes to state and federal government agencies through satellite videoconferencing. In recognition of his achievements in aeronautics, in 1984, tribal leaders gave him the name High Eagle. Today, now retired from NASA, he is the CEO of a technology company, composes and plays (as J. C. High Eagle) American Indian flute music as well as country music, and is a motivational speaker.
Feature Image: NASA/MSFC/Emmett Given (https://www.nasa.gov/centers/marshall/about/star/star171129.html)